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Trump-Kim Handshake May Be Meaningless Without Bridging Denuclearization Differences

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, June 30, 2019.

Baik Sung-won of VOA’s Korean Service contributed to this report.

President Donald Trump may have jumpstarted a new round of working-level talks with Pyongyang at his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but experts say their handshake is meaningless unless negotiators make a headway in bridging the countries’ divergent approaches toward denuclearization.

“It was great being with Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea this weekend,” Trump tweeted on Monday, the day after the two leaders met. “We had a great meeting…I look forward to seeing him again soon…In the meantime, our team will be meeting to work on some solutions to very long-term and persistent problems. No rush, but I am sure we will ultimately get there.”

The tweet came after Trump met Kim at the Freedom House on the South Korean side of the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that dissect the two Koreas. On Sunday, Trump announced that working-level talks with Pyongyang will begin within weeks.

Talks stalled at the Hanoi summit in February and the upcoming working level talks will attempt to get Washington and Pyongyang to bridge their differences on denuclearization, a process experts said will be difficult but not impossible.

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 28, 2019.
FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 28, 2019.

“The meeting itself is a massive breakthrough,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. “While a great deal of work remains, it is these small steps that will help create the trust needed to take giant leaps toward bigger diplomatic initiatives.”

Gary Samore, former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction during the Obama administration and current senior fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center’s Korea Project, said, “The resumption of U.S.-[North Korean] working level talks is a welcome development.”

He continued, “But [there] is no reason to believe the talks will produce rapid progress because both sides appear to remain deeply divided on denuclearization.”

Pyongyang favors taking a phased approach with each step taken toward denuclearization rewarded with some corresponding measure. Washington has been interested in drawing up a comprehensive denuclearization deal that includes the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear program.

Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned that “a Trump-Kim handshake at the DMZ will only have significance if it succeeds in starting detailed negotiations that have eluded both sides following [their summits in] Singapore and Hanoi.”

Trump and Kim first met last year at their summit in Singapore where Kim agreed to commit to denuclearization. At the Hanoi summit, Kim offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for a lifting of sanctions imposed by the international community since 2016. Trump denied the offer and instead asked Kim for full denuclearization which Kim rejected.

Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the DMZ summit “is really making up the ground we lost at Hanoi.” He continued, “The talks wouldn’t have been needed to be jumpstarted if both sides didn’t walk off with their maximalist position at Hanoi.”

Narang said for the working-level talks to succeed both sides need to revise their positions going forward and agree on the definition of denuclearization and what approach to take in achieving it.

Snyder said Kim needs to reconsider his nuclear policy as expressed internally and communicate to his government that he is realigning it with an externally expressed commitment toward denuclearization.

“Kim Jong Un has shown willingness to talk about the objective of complete denuclearization with Trump and other leaders,” said Snyder. “But he has not yet authorized the kinds of interaction by his government that would be necessary to achieve that goal.”

FILE - Visitors watch a photo showing North Korea's missile launch at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, April 19, 2019.
FILE - Visitors watch a photo showing North Korea's missile launch at the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, April 19, 2019.

According to a confidential North Korean government document that the VOA Korean Service obtained last month, Kim told his military officials ahead of the Hanoi summit that the goal of meeting Trump a second time was to be accepted as a nuclear power. The official document suggests that Kim does not intend to give up his nuclear weapons.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, “Kim’s goal remains to be accepted as a de facto nuclear weapons state like Pakistan and Israel.” He continued, “Until that changes there is little cause for optimism.”

A New York Times article published on Monday indicated that Washington is preparing to accept North Korea as a nuclear power in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear program.

A State Department spokesperson denied the report and told VOA’s Korean Service on Monday the U.S. is “not preparing any new proposals currently.” The spokesperson added, “Our goal remains the final, fully, verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

Narang said, “The first step is to get the meeting started because even that hasn’t happened yet.” He warned of the North Korean playbook which calls for sending a delegation to the talks with the intent to “burn the clock” without making any progress.

North Korea has often brushed off working-level talks in favor of dealing with Trump directly.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun met with his North Korean counterpart for a series of talks in February in Hanoi shortly before the summit as part of preparations for the summit. Even before the Singapore summit critics said there wasn’t enough time to prepare, something often undertaken in working-level talks.

“Kim Jong Un cannot afford to stand up to Steve Biegun anymore because if there’s one thing, [Kim] probably knows that President Trump put himself on the line,” said Narang.

Biegun will accompany Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the working-level talks. Biegun spoke about the need for both Washington and Pyongyang to take a flexible approach toward denuclearization in his speech given at the Atlantic Council last month. Pompeo, along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, had urged Trump against settling for nothing less than a grand deal.

Pompeo said on Sunday the North Korean Foreign Ministry will be leading the talks but “don’t know exactly who from the Foreign Ministry” will be on the North Korean negotiating team. Previously, Kim pushed the Foreign Ministry aside in favor of putting his former spy chief, Kim Yong Chol, as Pompeo’s counterpart.